One of the most lasting gifts of higher education is that exceptional teacher, that mentor who gives a little more of themselves and asks a little more of us than all of the others. For many of us in the Warren Wilson community, that mentor is Steve Norris. Steve’s work in the community spans the triad: he has worked with students and faculty in every aspect of school life, seamlessly integrating academic theory into practical work and service. The number of students he has positively impacted both directly and indirectly is too great to measure.
As Environmental Justice Crew (EJC) supervisor, Steve has afforded countless students opportunities for real-life connections to pressing issues both on and off campus. His roles as crew leader are multi-faceted; he acts simultaneously as boss, honorary crew member, emotional supporter, role model, travel companion, teacher, and friend. Steve enables crew members to safely explore their environmental beliefs, leadership skills, and engagement with the world. The six students currently on the crew could not imagine it without him. “Steve is a library of empowering knowledge,” says Gabriel Setright, crew member since 2012. “He really goes out of his way to get to know the crew members, and makes sure everybody is proactive and healthy in order to deal with very difficult environmental issues. He is definitely the glue that holds the crew together.”
As a professor, Steve has taught classes on Civil Rights, Non-Violence, and Environmental Justice that have confronted students with difficult questions, pushing them to search deep within themselves on where they stand. As Sabrina Ip (‘12) put it: “After Steve’s class sessions, I found myself having multiple conversations about environmental activism tactics, and where those fit in with social justice. I also learned a lot about current and local environmental justice issues–things that are just touched upon in other environmental studies classes.”
As an organizer, Steve’s involvement has been varied and impactful. Within The Lord’s Acre Garden, (a community garden growing food for those in need in Fairview), he has worked with Warren Wilson interns, equipping them with skills in both gardening and community organizing. Last summer, he organized the “Walk For Our Grandchildren,” a walk from Camp David, MD, to Washington, DC, to publicly reject the Keystone XL Pipeline and call for an end to fossil fuel extraction. This type of role modeling is what students really respond to: someone who shows us how to live the change we want to see.
“Steve has been my biggest role model and mentor since I came to Warren Wilson,” says Delia Kennelly Dreher, current EJC member. “Steve embodies the term ‘step up, step back,’ as he is a source of knowledge and leadership, but he supports students in taking on the leadership roles and exploring what is most important to them. Steve’s background in activism and various movements means he brings a perspective to the EJC and campus that is truly irreplaceable. He has been there for me every step of my personal growth this year in my journey of self-awareness and global consciousness, and I hope that other students will get to experience activism with such a wonderful friend for guidance.”
When some of us decided to found the EJC in 2010, we knew we needed a supervisor who was really in touch with environmental issues, and who could be a co-conspirator. We first met Steve on a Warren-Wilson-led trip to the School of the Americas protest in Fort Benning Georgia, when he stepped up to be the lone chaperone after the then supervisor of the Peace and Justice Crew fell ill. Attendance at this anti-U.S.-Imperialism protest is a Warren Wilson tradition started by Andy Summers and continued by Steve and the EJC. It was at an SOA protest in 2006 that Luna Scarano (‘11) first learned about Warren Wilson, from the students she met at a workshop there.
“It was my desire to make positive change that brought me to Warren Wilson in the first place, and I feel that my time spent with Steve on the EJC has really shaped me into the person I am today,” says Luna. “His work as a teacher has inspired me to take my activism in that direction, helping me realize there are many ways to work toward what I believe in.”
Steve has remained both a mentor and close friend of ours years after we’ve graduated. Fern MacDougal (‘11) says that when she came to Warren Wilson in 2010, she was struggling to learn how to insert herself into meaningful roles in real social movements, and how to find and fill these roles as a college student. Steve was able to help her do just that–because he was already doing it. Now, employed as a full-time environmental organizer, she finds that the relationships she formed while organizing with Steve are very much a part of her life and career.
This opportunity for environmental justice work and civic engagement is exactly what attracts many young people Warren Wilson. Steve inspires in students the courage to stand up for what they believe in and to work to make this world a better place. Rather than something to shy away from, critical thought and cultivated action are qualities many Warren Wilson graduates strive to embody, in a world of so much ignorance and indifference.
Because we recognize the school is making some tough financial decisions right now, we want to assert that Steve Norris is an irreplaceable asset to the Warren Wilson community. We want to remind the administration that the decision whether or not to prioritize funding for the EJC supervisor position will have a profound impact on our alma mater’s ability to live up to its commitment to “environmental responsibility, cross-cultural understanding, and the common good.” Because we have already been blessed by the doors Steve Norris has opened for us, we advocate now for the same opportunities to be alive on campus for future generations of students. Our hope is to see sparked in them the spirit of open inquiry and civic engagement of which Steve is the burning torch.
With respect and affection,
Warren Wilson Alumni and college community members, Including:
Miranda De Las Calles
Tyler Everest Holmes
Annie W. Lo
Melody Grace Miller
Rachel Joy Rasmussen
Raya Irene Rose
Morgan Rose Stewart
Caroline Ellis Duble
Delia Kennelly Dreher
Gabriel Yarince Perez Setright
Marc N. Williams
(current students and college community)